Editor’s note: During this holiday season, redefinED is republishing our best articles of 2019 – those features and commentaries that deserve a second look. This student spotlight from Step Up For Students’ strategic communications manager Scott Kent originally published Jan. 14.
LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth-grader who was in need of a lifeline.
The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.
In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.
A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.
“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.
Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.
The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. (Editor’s Note: Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, administers the Hope Scholarship.)
Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1, which proved timely for Jordyn. In September, a girl in school slapped him. That was the last straw for his grandmother, who along with Jordyn’s grandfather Danny Simmons has helped care for the boy for much of his life. She needed to get Jordyn into a new school pronto.
She went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.
The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.
It was like Independence Day.
“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”
The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.
“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”
Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”
He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.
“The people are nice,” he says.
Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7.
Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.
“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”
Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”
A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.
“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”
At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.
So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.
“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Eli and to hear his story in his mother’s words, please watch the video at the end of this post.
LaBELLE, Fla. – In his family’s backyard, Eli Conner, 13, wobbled across a 20-foot tightrope, pretending to be the hero in a rescue scene from a “Despicable Me” movie.
Using foam hand grips hanging from another rope, he pulled himself toward a big oak at the end of the line. “You’re getting closer,” encouraged his mom, Stephanie Conner. “Now touch the tree.” Eli finished with a triumphant tap.
“One handed,” said Mom. “Nice.”
Eli, who communicates mostly through sign language, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and other developmental delays. A few years ago, he was scared and struggling in a traditional school. A few weeks ago, he couldn’t do the tightrope.
Now he can.
And now, thanks to a cutting-edge education choice scholarship, his family is confident they will see his growth continue to accelerate.
Even in this remote town near the Everglades, there are more educational resources than meet the eye. It just takes the right tool to assemble them. The Conner family did that with the Gardiner Scholarship, Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs. It gave them flexibility to devise an education regimen – therapy, home school, private school – that was just right for Eli.
The scholarship, Stephanie Conner said, “changed everything.”
Stephanie Conner describes herself as a stay-at-home mom. She is a former public and private schoolteacher. Her husband, Joel Conner, is a graphic artist and adult education teacher from a family of educators, including his father, a former superintendent of the local public schools. The Conners have four children, three of them adopted. All four use education choice scholarships.
Eli and his sister, Madeline, 9, use the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in America. Created by the Florida Legislature in 2014, it now serves 13,112 students, including 449 in rural counties. Three thousand more are on a wait list. The Conners’ 5-year-olds, Meizi and Gideon, use the new Family Empowerment Scholarship for working- and middle-class families. Created by the Legislature this year, it’s already reached its cap of 18,000 students.
Without intending to be trendsetters, the Conners are using the Gardiner Scholarship in a novel way that underscores the potential for schools to unbundle their services – and better serve families. (More on that in a sec.) Their experience also shows the upside of giving parents more power to shape their children’s educational programming – even in rural areas – where myths about education choice not being viable persist despite this, this and this.
LaBelle, pop. 4,640, is not postcard Florida. It’s laid-back, fringed with cabbage palms, a pit stop between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers. It’s also the county seat of Hendry County, a patch of farm country blanketed by sugar cane that holds fewer humans per square mile than Kansas.
The Conner kids are fourth-generation Hendry County. They have plenty of family nearby, which is why, pre-Gardiner, the Conners were on the verge of a heart-breaking decision. Family? Or therapy? To be closer to the therapists Eli needed, they kept thinking they’d have to uproot to the city. “It was always a terrible feeling to have to even consider giving up one or the other,” Conner said. “Family support, when you’re dealing with special needs, is indispensable.”
Thanks to the scholarship, they never had to make that choice. This is Eli’s third year using the Gardiner Scholarship, and the first for Madeline, who has been diagnosed with bilateral congenital deafness.
Like growing numbers of parents with education savings accounts, the Conners are “customizers.” They use the funds to mix and match educational products and services in addition to, or beyond, school. In their case: home school materials; therapy sessions and equipment (for speech, occupational and sensory integration therapy); and partial tuition at International Christian Academy, a private school a block from their home.
Several times a year, Stephanie Conner takes Eli to Orlando for three weeks of intensive therapy. The rest of the time, she does daily therapies with Eli and Madeline, many involving tools purchased with Gardiner funds. “Peanut balance balls” help them both improve motor skills. A microphone helps Madeline better enunciate words. An array of spoon-like tools helps Eli with his speech, with Mom using them to strengthen muscles in his mouth.
For Eli, the positive effects spill over into academics. Depending on the subject, his proficiency ranges from a first- to fourth-grade level. He reads at a third-grade level. But over the past three years, he’s gained a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time. And sensory integration therapy has made it possible for him to learn in more settings, from field trips to classrooms. “His ability to sit still and not be overwhelmed by sights and sounds … has allowed him to participate,” Conner said.
The private school piece is key. So is the way the school offers its services. The youngest Conners go full time. Eli goes for PE, lunch and a science/social studies class. Madeline goes for PE. For the older siblings, the school charges partial tuition. It has unbundled its services in a way that more and more parents will appreciate and other schools, public and private, would be wise to consider.
“If someone wants to be part of our school, I’m going to let them,” said International Christian Academy founder and principal Tracy Co. “I thought it was a good fit for them and it’s worked.”
The school serves 80 full-time students in K-12. More than half are non-white. More than 80 percent use state scholarships. (Sixty use either the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students or the Family Empowerment Scholarship. FTC, FES and Gardiner are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Eli has been warmly welcomed. During a recent kickball game, his classmates erupted in cheers when he booted a low liner up the middle. At first base, he fist bumped the coach.
The boost to Eli’s social skills is also bolstering his academics, giving him more confidence and more ability to focus and learn, Conner said. Between therapies, home school and part-time private school, she said, “this has just been the perfect combination.”
Perfect combinations really are possible. Even out here.
MIAMI – Christopher Bermudez likes plants. Like, really likes plants. The thought of reviving a droopy sprig of mizuna inspired the 17-year-old to riff: “When you kind of have faith in the plants, and you keep taking care of it, and you see it spring back up to life, that’s one of the biggest fulfilling feelings ever.”
How gratifying for Bermudez that he gets to pair that infatuation with real-world research. Among other projects, he and his classmates at BioTECH High School are helping scientists with a mammoth, years-long venture to determine which cultivars of edible plants will make the best crops for – no joke – space travel.
“Our research helps supplement their research,” said Bermudez, who’s aiming for a career in experimental horticulture. “You’re kind of helping the future of our species.”
BioTECH and its lovable science geeks make for a compelling narrative. So does the back story.
First pan to Florida, which has expanded charter schools, private school scholarships, education savings accounts and other varieties of educational choice as much as any state in America. Then zoom in to Miami-Dade County, home to a forward-thinking school district that chose to surf this “tsunami of choice” rather than fight it. The result is a rich, evolving, educational ecosystem where a slew of new educational cultivars are vying to find their niches.
If the theory holds, ever more students will choose from ever more options – including district choice options like BioTECH – to find the one that fits their needs and fuels their passions.
“Choice is very important in human nature, right? And I think that for students, choice is of utmost importance,” said BioTECH principal Daniel Mateo, a chemist by training. “When you force a child to do something, it never really works out quite the way you think it’s going to work out. But when you give them the flexibility of choice, you allow them to select what it is they want to do based on that natural affinity that they have for that particular subject. It’s a given. They’re going to perform.”
BioTECH, all of five years old, is a magnet school and the nation’s only high school specializing in conservation biology. Its aim: to develop successive generations of researchers who will apply their ingenuity and training to the conservation of life on Earth.
Heady stuff. Which makes it all the more remarkable, maybe, that BioTECH has no entrance requirements; serves a student body that is mostly low-income; and shares a campus with a once-struggling middle school.
Richmond Heights Middle, 14 miles southwest of gleaming downtown Miami, was perpetually C-rated by the state. Over the years, scores of school choice options mushroomed around it – and parents responded accordingly. Enrollment fell by half.
In turn, the Miami-Dade school district responded accordingly. It considered what academic programming students and parents wanted; what college degrees and jobs were hot; what community partnerships it could forge or strengthen. With help from a $10 million federal magnet schools grant, BioTECH was born.
The middle school is home base. But BioTECH’s 400 students spend big chunks of time doing research at three partner institutions: Zoo Miami, Everglades National Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Their lab equipment is college-caliber. Half their teachers are working scientists. They’re expected to shoot for publication in a scientific journal by the time they graduate.
Some of BioTECH’s “junior scientists” are studying the intestinal flora of spider monkeys to develop diets that make captive monkeys less prone to stomach problems. Others, like Bermudez, are doing research for Growing Beyond Earth, a partnership between Fairchild and NASA. Still others work in micropropagation labs at Fairchild, growing rare orchids that can be reintroduced into slices of South Florida where they once thrived.
“Who thought plants could be so fun?” said senior Peyton Ecklund.
Ecklund, 17, who plans to pursue botanical research in college, chose BioTECH over other high-performing schools in Miami-Dade. She liked that it was “trying to do something special” and emphasized student-driven learning. “We have to make the projects from scratch. And we have to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “If you learn how to be independent and figure it out on your own now, who knows what you can do in the future?”
Judging by demand, BioTECH is a smash. Last year, it reeled in 600 applications for 150 seats. So far this year, it’s on pace for 1,000 applications for 100 seats.
It’s no surprise the school took root in Miami. Miami-Dade has the highest rate of charter school and private school students of any urban district in Florida. It has one of the highest rates of students exercising district choice. More than 60 percent of Miami-Dade students are now enrolled in hundreds of district options, from magnet schools and career academies to international programs and K-8 centers.
“We recognized … the choice tsunami was upon us,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in April. “And I was not going to do what lot of my colleagues did. Which is, ‘Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t hit us.’ “
BioTECH earned an A from the state this year. (Richmond Heights earned a B.) Its demographics mirror the district’s. Eighty-nine percent of its students are non-white (it’s 93 percent for the district). Sixty-three percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch (it’s 66 percent for the district). Forty-two percent, meanwhile, receive special education services or accommodations.
“That’s 100 percent by design,” Mateo said. “It’s not about having elite students … If you have a passion (for science), we can cultivate that.”
The district does not provide transportation to BioTECH. That’s not a plus for equity. But HVAC repairmen and nursing assistants find a way to get their kids there just like radiologists and military officers do.
Daniella Lira, 17, a junior at BioTECH, said her parents left poverty in Peru for a better life in the U.S. A love for animals and a desire to be a veterinarian led her to the school. Diving into hands-on science has her considering other possibilities.
“Being part of the research and being treated as an actual scientist has opened my eyes,” Lira said.
BioTECH should open some eyes, too. There’s no end to the variety that can sprout in choice-rich soil.
You can be forgiven for thinking, given the vivid “tsunami of choice” metaphor used by Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, that America’s fifth-biggest school district saw the rapid expansion of charter schools and private school choice a decade ago and concluded, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
But listen to Carvalho for a few minutes and you might arrive at a different take – that Miami-Dade sized up the forces of choice and customization re-shaping public education and decided they’d beat competing sectors at their own game.
“I think it would be fair to say that I am by nature a reasonably competitive guy, and my team is as well,” Carvalho told me in a recorded interview in April, as I was putting together a paper on Miami-Dade for the Education Cities conference at Harvard. “But I can also tell you that we stopped trying to out compete others long ago. And now we’re in a phase of work where really we’re trying to outperform ourselves.”
“It really was a transition,” Carvalho continued. “We have seen the growth of the charter school movement in our community. But we’ve seen an even more aggressive … growth of public school choices within the previously-known-as traditional schools in Miami-Dade. So yes, I would credit in part our success, and the explosive nature of choice programs in our system, to, at least in part, to competition. But it was strategic competition. It’s not just to win the gold medal in anything. It was actually competition to deliver choice at much higher levels, being strategic in the deployment of choice programs, by analyzing their existence by zip code, across the district, and filling in the gaps.”
We at redefinED converted the interview into a podcast to complement the paper on Miami-Dade, which Education Next published this week. Among other points Carvalho makes about educational choice:
Resistance is futile. “We recognized … that the choice tsunami was upon us. And I was not going to do what lot of my colleagues did. Which is, ‘Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t hit us. Or let’s just allow this to go through. Like all things, this is a fad that will go away.’ … I could anticipate the policy shift in the state of Florida and across the country. And we were right. It has, quite frankly, materialized exactly as we predicted. But rather than being a spectator, or a victim of it, we were an active participant in it.“
More choice, better outcomes. “It’s not disputable that students that are enrolled in these choice programs usually perform academically better than those who are not. I think we ought to celebrate that. But the celebration should not last very long. We ought to replicate the success and continue to amplify through equitable access to the same opportunity that’s now being granted to 70 percent of our kids, but needs to be granted to the rest of them.”
You ain’t seen nothing yet. “Ten to 20 years from now, how will we be teaching kids in America? In Miami-Dade? … The most honest answer to that question is, we don’t know. And I say that because I think the mode and model of educational work will be significantly different from anything we know and understand today, as a result of three powerful forces: digitization, automation and artificial intelligence. You put those three forces together and you have to anticipate a dramatic shift, perhaps the most powerful shift we’ve seen in education in the history of mankind.”
Enjoy the podcast, and read last week’s redefinED post about Carvalho here.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every day, they cut him with slurs. Almost every day, they tried to block him from the boys’ locker room. For Elijah Robinson, a soft-spoken kid with mocha skin and almond eyes, the harassment at his high school was cruel punishment for his sexual identity.
It started in ninth grade and continued through most of 10th. It eventually turned physical, with boys pushing and kicking him, hoping to provoke a fight.
At some point, Elijah said, the bullying made him too “scatterbrained” to focus on academics. His A’s and B’s fell to F’s. But bad grades were the least of it.
The bullying led to depression. Depression spiraled into a suicide attempt.
Once Elijah got out of the hospital, his mom decided to take him out of the assigned public school that had become his nightmare and send him to a place called The Foundation Academy. A friend assured Elijah’s mom that the eclectic little private school was warm and welcoming – to all students.
To pay tuition, the single mother and nail salon worker secured a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. Funded by corporate contributions, the scholarship is used by 100,000 students statewide, two thirds of them black and Hispanic and typically the ones who struggled the most in their prior public schools.
Without it, Elijah’s mom said, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the school.
Without it, Elijah said, he wouldn’t be alive.
“If I had stayed at my previous school,” he said, “I honestly think I would have lost my life.”
Elijah is 18 now, and a senior. The bullying is behind him. His academics are back on track.
The students and teachers at The Foundation Academy “didn’t see me as a label. They saw me for me,” he said. “I definitely am in a better place.”
Elijah’s story would be compelling any time, but it’s especially poignant now as there has been increased criticism of the scholarship program and religious schools with policies adhering to their faith.
According to the most recent survey from GLSEN, 72 percent of LGBTQ students in public district schools said they experienced bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation, compared to 68 percent of LGBTQ students in private, religious schools. For bullying, harassment and assault based on gender expression, the corresponding rates were 61 percent and 56 percent.
Those numbers speak to an urgent need for more awareness and action across all types of schools. But in the meantime, this fact cannot be ignored: The growing availability of choice scholarships has given more students like Elijah the ability to find a safe haven.
Elijah is tall and thin, with a shock of hair that makes his mixed-race features even more striking. He likes to jog. He likes to read. He likes “Call of Duty,” and salmon sashimi, and fishing with his uncle. He exudes a quiet confidence that sometimes comes to those who have endured so much, so young.
Elijah thinks he was harassed in his prior school because he liked to wear girl’s jeans and sweaters and was not “acting like the stereotypical guy.” He said he didn’t fight back. Instead, he did what bullied kids are advised to do: tell the adults in charge. The teachers and administrators said they told his tormentors to stop, but they didn’t stop. Elijah said when he continued to complain, the teachers and administrators told him to “just ignore it.”
The Foundation Academy is 15 minutes from Elijah’s old school, but in terms of school culture it’s on another planet. It serves 375 students in K-12, with 86 percent using choice scholarships. Thanks to those scholarships, the school is remarkably diverse, and has served at least two dozen openly LGBTQ students.
In a 2018 story about another LGBTQ student who found refuge at the school, founder and principal Nadia Hionides noted she has a son, a brother and a niece who are LGBTQ. “We love Jesus, and Jesus loves everybody,” Hionides said. “We must affirm and accept everybody.”
Elijah isn’t sure exactly what he’s doing after graduation, but he’s planning on college and wants to be a nurse like his aunt. He likes the thought of helping people in pain. He already knows a lot about hurt and healing.
ST. CLOUD, Fla. – In the ever-expanding universe of public education, Phil and Jennifer Henderson are, by their own design, little fish in a big pond. A few years ago, the couple left teaching in public schools here on the edge of metro Orlando to start their own little micro-school.
Arts Thereafter is a faith-based, arts-rich, economically diverse, “learner-driven,” K-12 school with 60 students. (Try and label that! 😊) It reflects what the Hendersons think is the right way to do teaching and learning, spurred in part by a fear to fail that gripped one of their own children. (Click on the audio below to hear their account.)
Lawyers, ranchers and blueberry farmers like their approach. Nurses, mechanics and sheriff’s deputies do too. Many of them wouldn’t have been able to afford Arts Thereafter (as modestly priced as it is) without Florida’s menu of choice scholarships. The Hendersons wouldn’t have been able to sustain their school without them. But shared interest, and the freedom to try something new, is giving life to the couple’s vision. And who knows? It might even give educators, in Florida and beyond, another example of what’s possible under a new definition of public education.
“If you’re a fish that’s been in a fish tank for a long time, do you realize there’s a whole ocean out there?” said Henderson, 39, who taught science in district and charter middle schools. “I’m not saying our way is for everybody. But there’s a whole ocean out there of different ways of doing things.”
Arts Thereafter is tucked into two modular buildings behind a modest church that pines hide from the highway. Its humble exterior belies that it’s part of the Acton Academy, an acclaimed micro-school network. From its start in Austin, Texas a decade ago, Acton has grown to 160 affiliates. Phil Henderson said when he stumbled on the network’s existence, “I was ready to give my life to it. I said if this is the future of education, count me in.”
There are no tests, no grades, no grade levels in the traditional sense. There are “guides” instead of teachers. Students are given wide latitude to become independent thinkers, to acquire useful, real-world knowledge by following their curiosity. They do projects and group work. Their peers hold them accountable.
Does it work? Let’s veer from fish to chicken.
Earlier this year, the kids in the middle school “studio” were challenged by their guide to build a structure. They initially proposed a playhouse (for the younger students) but … too expensive. Somebody suggested a chicken coop. They could raise chickens, sell the eggs, and learn tons of science along the way.
Working in teams, some of them acquired eggs from a local farmer and raised the chicks. Others contacted local builders to defray costs through donated materials. Others researched local ordinances to make sure it was legal to keep chickens. All of them worked together on the design, which had to be revised several times to meet financial realities. (The original called for a three-story “chicken mansion.”) All of them worked together to build it.
Last week, the students sold five roosters they raised for $10 each. The student designated to be the seller was sure he could get $20 each, but froze when it was time to haggle with the buyer. His peers razzed him a bit, but both he and they could laugh about it.
Failing was part of the process.
“This wasn’t take a test and regurgitate it back on paper,” Jennifer Henderson said. “This was planning, designing, re-designing, fixing, failing and trying again. We let them fail, early and often, so they know how to bounce back and do better next time.”
Half the students at Arts Thereafter use state choice scholarships, including 26 who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. (The scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Katherine Day’s son Christian is one of them. Day, a mother of five, is a paraprofessional at a district school. Her husband is a branch manager for a rental car company. Christian, 13, was a bit of an outcast in public school. His peers picked on him because he liked to talk physics and the military, and most of his teachers, Day said, didn’t have the time or inclination to help. Christian woke up every morning dreading school.
In the beginning, it was rough at Arts Thereafter too. But the Hendersons kept in constant contact with Day. In a micro-school with 60 kids, they could.
Two years in, Christian is happy again, and fully engaged in his school. He’s made friends. He knows everybody is on his side. “Every issue, they helped me through it,” Day said. “It was like family.”
It remains to be seen how much micro-schools can chip away at the big challenges facing public education. But in a choice-rich state like Florida, it’s not hard to find more of them (like this one and this one) emerging in the shadows of school districts. One by one, they’re giving parents and teachers a glimpse into the endless educational variety that, with more choice, can be.
“These micro-schools are all answers to different questions,” Jennifer Henderson said. “Everybody’s different. Everybody has their own thought about how education should be, how their children should learn. We’re only an answer for some. We’re not an answer for all.”
But with more choice giving more educators more power, more answers might add up. The little fish at the Arts Thereafter micro-school checked their fear to fail.
They found out the water’s just fine.
Workspace takes a large step toward fulfilling the vision of Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman.
One struggles how exactly to describe Workspace, but a K-12 learning community/co-working space/business incubator is at least a start. Workspace occupies a red building in a rural Connecticut business park and has 130 K-12 courses taught mostly by parents, with a starting price of $3,500 per student and $1,500 per family for additional students. Many parents meanwhile run businesses from the co-working space in between having lunch with their kids (made in the Workspace kitchen and a far cry from the soybean burgers of my youth) and possibly teaching classes.
If you recall that feeling of restless boredom of “senioritis” that many students start feeling long before their senior year, you’ll envy the Workspace students autonomy in directing their own education and development. Workspace is the antithesis of factory-model schooling, approaching education like building a playlist of classes and experiences. The above sounds very similar to what I saw at Workspace, it’s just happening under a single roof. An Acton Academy micro-school operates in Workspace as one of many options.
Want to learn coding and robotics? Got you covered. How about 3-D printing? Yes, that too. Art — of course. Hit the bulletin board to read about stand-up comedy night and receive invitations to work on a dizzying array of projects. Got an idea for a business? Let’s incubate that and get you started.
All of this had been anticipated in 1978 by Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman in their book “Education by Choice,” by the way. Here is what they had to say:
To us, a more attractive idea is matching up a child and a series of individual instructors who operate independently from one another. Studying reading in the morning at Ms. Kay’s house, spending two afternoons a week learning a foreign language in Mr. Buxbaum’s electronic laboratory, and going on nature walks and playing tennis the other afternoons under the direction of Mr. Phillips could be a rich package for a ten-year-old. Aside from the educational broker or clearing house which, for a small fee (payable out of the grant to the family), would link these teachers and children, Kay, Buxbaum, and Phillips need have no organizational ties with one another. Nor would all children studying with Kay need to spend time with Buxbaum and Phillips; instead some would do math with Mr. Feller or animal care with Mr. Vetter.
The part of the Coons/Sugarman story missing in Connecticut thus far is the grant. Workspace does include financial aid for families, but this looks like the proto-ESA model described by Coons and Sugarman coming from the passion of the founders and the pocketbooks/sweat equity of parents.
If your mind is racing about now wondering just how many Workspace-like communities could arise in Florida, and how they could be purposefully inclusive of low-income and students with disabilities through use of scholarship programs, well, mine is too.
Coons and Sugarman should book a flight to Connecticut. Gentlemen, people are bringing your vision to life. Addressing the equity question will require enlightened public policy. Coons and Sugarman also called for just that in “Education by Choice”:
To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state-imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example, some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.
If anyone thinks that these parents would put forth the type of effort required to deliver over 100 different classes if required to follow state standards developed by obscure people long ago, think again. These people are teaching classes because they care about their children and are passionate and often very expert about their subjects. Moreover, there is an internal quality control mechanism in Workspace — classes either attract enough students to “make” or they don’t. If you either don’t have your act together or just aren’t great at teaching, word spreads quickly in the tight knit Workspace community and you get voted off the instructor island.
Workspace is a small education community, but a very big idea. Let’s see what happens next.